Pitch: Understanding Rules, Instructions & Winning Strategy


Pitch is a classic trick-taking card game, also known as Setback, and has been around for centuries still enjoyed by many today. Pitch is played with a standard 52-card deck and can accommodate 2 to 7 players, which I find makes it a versatile choice for game nights once newer players get to grips with the rules. The objective of the game is to score points by winning tricks, or rounds, during each hand.

The game is believed to have been derived from an old English game called “All Fours” which dates back to the 17th century. The rules for Pitch vary from region to region but the most popular version is known as Auction Pitch, which includes an auction phase where players bid for the right to choose the trump suit.

The game was popular among the American colonial forces, and it spread to the military and naval forces as well. Because of its popularity among these groups, it quickly spread to other parts of the country and became a staple in many households.

Pitch is typically played with a standard deck of 52 cards and can be played with two to seven players, although in my experience it is most commonly played with four players. The goal of the game is to score points by winning tricks, which are rounds where each player plays one card. The player who plays the highest card in the suit of the first card played, or the highest card of the trump suit, wins the trick.

In the 20th century, the game evolved to include more complex bidding and scoring systems. Despite these changes, the basic gameplay of Pitch has remained the same, and it continues to be a popular card game in the United States today.

While its popularity may have waned with the advent of more modern card games, Pitch maintains a dedicated following. It is often played in social settings and is particularly popular in certain regions of the United States, including New England and the Midwest and in my home state of MA. If you’re into the game I also recommend checking out Skat, which I’ve written a guide on.

Quick Tip for Pitch

Remember, in Pitch, the highest bidder sets the trump suit. Use this to your advantage when you have a strong hand in a particular suit.

Rules for playing Pitch

The rules of Pitch are relatively straightforward. Each player is dealt six cards, and the player who bids the highest number of points gets to set the trump suit for that hand. The players then take turns playing cards, with the goal of winning tricks and scoring points. There are also some common ‘house rules’ that can add a twist to the game, such as allowing players to bid to play without a partner.

The Deal for Pitch

In Pitch, the dealer shuffles the deck and deals six cards to each player, three at a time. The remaining deck is set aside, and play begins with the player to the dealer’s left.

How to Play Pitch

  1. Setup: Each player is dealt six cards, and the player to the left of the dealer begins the bidding process.
  2. Gameplay: Players take turns playing cards, trying to win tricks and score points. The player who wins a trick leads the next round.
  3. End of the Game: The game ends when a player reaches a predetermined number of points, usually 21.
  4. Scoring: Points are scored for winning tricks, with additional points awarded for certain cards.

The usual flow of play follows a clockwise rotation. To kick things off, players determine the first dealer by a random selection. Cards hold values much like in the game Whist, each having specific numerical values known as pips, as detailed in this table:

Highhighest trump out1original owner = eventual owner
Lowlowest trump out1original owner
JackJack of trumps1eventual owner
Gamemost pips in tricks1eventual owner

During each round, up to 4 points are allocated among the players or teams. Victory in the game is claimed by the party that achieves a predetermined target score across several rounds.

To start, the dealer shuffles the deck, and the pone (opposite to the dealer) makes a cut. Subsequently, the dealer deals 6 cards to each player in sets of 3. The suit of the initial card played in a round determines the trump. The player sitting in the oldest hand position leads the first trick, and the winner of each trick leads the next one. The standard rules of play apply, though there’s a deviation allowing a player to play a trump even if they can follow suit to a plain suit lead.

At the conclusion of each round, scoring points are granted according to the table’s guidelines. Notably, the Jack point isn’t given if no player possesses the Jack of trumps. The Game point is only awarded when one party secures more pips in tricks than any other. Scoring points follow a strict order from the table, preventing ties if multiple teams reach the target score at the round’s end.

The version of this game known as All Fours, commonly played in northern England pubs today, involves four players forming partnerships, aiming to reach 11 points. Additional rewards are given for securing all four points in a single hand. In certain regions, the Low point is granted to the eventual owner.

Determining the trump suit by leading the first trick is termed as “pitching.” This stands as a distinctive feature, differing from classical All Fours/Seven Up, where the trump is decided by revealing a card from the deck.

How to Win at Pitch

Winning at Pitch requires a combination of strategy, skill, and a bit of luck. Knowing when to bid high, when to play your high cards, and when to hold back can make the difference between winning and losing. It’s also important to keep track of what cards have been played and to try to anticipate what your opponents might do.

Strategy for playing Pitch

One of the best strategies in Pitch is to bid aggressively when you have a strong hand, especially if you have high cards in the trump suit. It’s also beneficial to keep track of what cards have been played and to try to control the flow of the game by winning tricks when it’s advantageous to you.

1. Know Your Game: There are many variations of Pitch, including two, three, or four-player games, and understanding the rules of your particular game is the first step to developing a winning strategy.

2. Card Value: Understand the hierarchical value of cards. The highest bidder determines the trump suit, and trump cards outrank all other suits. The ranking of the trump cards from highest to lowest goes: J, A, K, Q, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2.

3. Bidding: Don’t bid too high. Bidding is an essential part of Pitch, and the player who bids the highest will lead the first trick. However, if you bid too high and fail to make your bid, you’ll lose points. It’s often best to bid conservatively unless you have a strong hand.

4. Play Defensively: If you can’t win a trick, it’s often best to play your lowest card. This way, you can save your higher cards for tricks you have a better chance of winning.

5. Keep Track of Cards: A good memory is helpful in Pitch. If you can remember what cards have been played, you’ll have a better idea of what cards your opponents might have left.

6. Control the Game: If you win a trick, you get to lead the next one. This gives you some control over what suit is played, and you can use this to your advantage if you have several high cards in a particular suit.

7. The Trump Suit: If you have a high number of cards from the trump suit, it’s usually a good idea to bid aggressively. Trump cards are the most powerful cards in the game and having a lot of them gives you a strong chance of winning many tricks.

8. Communication: In partner versions of the game, subtle communication with your partner can be key. This doesn’t mean breaking the rules by sharing what cards you have, but rather strategic play that signals to your partner what suits you are strong or weak in.

9. Know When to Fold: If you have a weak hand, it might be best to fold early rather than risk losing more points.

10. Practice: As with any game, the best way to improve your strategy is through practice. The more you play, the better you’ll understand the intricacies of the game and the more effective your strategies will become.

Game Variations

There are several variations of Pitch, including Partnership Pitch, Auction Pitch, and Joker Pitch. Each variation has its own unique rules and strategies, adding an extra layer of complexity and fun to the game.

You can also play with some interesting minor variations which I’ll list here:

  1. Exclusive Scoring: Only the bidding player or team earns points per round. Failing to meet the bid sets the bidder back without awarding points to others.
  2. Deck Modifications: To enhance the game’s dynamics, lower cards like Threes, Fours, and Fives might be omitted. Eliminating Threes ensures all cards are dealt in an eight-player game.
  3. Variable Point Targets: Games are often played for varied point totals (e.g., 7, 9, 15, or 21). The ideal number hinges on player count and typical deal-winning points. A formula might determine points required to win: (available points) * (players) + 1.
  4. Increased Minimum Bid: The minimum bid could be raised to two, offering more strategic depth.
  5. Dealer’s Advantage: The dealer, bidding last, might have the chance to match the highest bid, potentially snatching the bid. If successful, the dealer must meet at least the minimum bid if all others pass.
  6. Low Point Variation: Rather than the original owner, the player winning the trick with the lowest trump often earns the Low point.
  7. Achieving Maximum Bid: A bidder who fulfills and wins the maximum bid achieves a special status known as smudging, slamming, or shooting the moon. If not in a negative score position, this player automatically wins the entire game.
  8. Jokers in Play: Adding two jokers to the deck elevates potential round earnings to 6 points. Jokers rank just below the jack, act as trump, and cannot lead the first trick. The eventual owner, not the original holder, earns the joker point, valued at half a pip.
  9. Optional Joker Substitution: In certain 10-point games, the jokers might be substituted for the King and Queen cards.


There are many scenarios in Pitch that can turn the tide of the game. For example, if you’re dealt a hand with several high cards in the same suit, you might decide to bid high and try to win the hand by taking as many tricks as possible. On the other hand, if you’re dealt a weak hand, you might decide to play conservatively and try to limit your losses.

Frequently Asked Questions about playing Pitch

  1. How many players can play Pitch? Pitch can be played with 2 to 7 players.
  2. What is the objective of Pitch? The objective is to score points by winning tricks.
  3. How many cards are dealt in Pitch? Each player is dealt six cards.
  4. What is the trump suit in Pitch? The trump suit is determined by the player who bids the highest number of points.
  5. How do you win at Pitch? You win by scoring the most points, usually 21, through winning tricks and scoring additional points for certain cards.

For a fun pop culture reference, check out the episode of the classic TV show “M*A*S*H” where the characters play a game of Pitch in the mess tent.

Pitch Gameplay [Videos]